Anxiety; The source may be unacknowledged suffering.

It was about ten in the evening when my friend Gary called complaining of an anxiety attack. His heart was pounding, his mind was racing and the most disturbing of all, he was unable to sleep. At this point the symptoms have almost become a way of life. He doesn’t expect to sleep much. He expects the disturbing thoughts to enter his repose just when his mind tries to relax, just when he is the most vulnerable to unwanted images.

He was hoping that I could help it all go away, that I might have some magic cure, or exercise, or elixir that would give him peace. But the truth is, Gary is in a miserable situation. His HIV diagnosis has just been downgraded to AIDS, and with a T-Cell count of two, it is not surprising that unpleasant thoughts invade his calmness.

I didn’t have a magical cure for Gary, but one thing I did do was to acknowledge the fact that he was suffering. You see, I believe his anxiety stems from not being able to consciously accept his situation.

Deng Ming-Dao from his book, Tao states,

“There is an underbelly of terror to all life. It is suffering, it is hurt. Life’s terrors haunt us, attack us, leave ugly scars. To buffer ourselves we dwell on beauty, we collect things, we fall in love, we desperately try to make something lasting in our lives. But all of this cannot veil disease, violence, randomness and injustice.”

It is not easy to deal with suffering. On the one hand many of us try to trivialize or disconnect from pain, hoping that we can avoid it, like my friend Jackie. She suffers from fairly severe anxiety, but makes a point to appear as if everything in her life is “just fine”. Work is going well, her marriage is great and the kids are peachy. No physical cause has been found for her attacks, and to look for an emotional cause is too difficult so she pushes it out of her mind and lives with the anxiety.

On the other hand, some of us tend to exaggerate our discomfort, making it more real and regarding it as a part of our identity, like me. I have a real knack for being able to take the smallest thing and turn it into a full blown event. For example, if I have any pain in my body whatsoever, I’m sure it has to be cancer, then I feel anxious until it goes away.

At any rate, neither extreme is helpful.

The trick is to learn effective suffering, which means that you recognize and accept heartache as an unavoidable and helpful (yes helpful) part of living in the world and growing as a person. It needn’t be psychologized, or regarded with pity or sentimentality. However, to deny the presence of distress can be extremely costly, and anxiety is one of the prices paid. So the challenge is to find a way to touch despair, to name it and work with it effectively, without becoming hysterical or trying to control it.

To do this requires a skill that I believe is enormously helpful in life, and that is the skill of mindfulness or awareness. It requires a tender sort of sobriety, a willingness to absorb each experience and then let it go. Mindfulness is not so much a “doing” as a “being with” that precedes effective doing.

The truth is that my friend Gary is going to die very soon. The “magical cure” that I would give him for his anxiety would be the fortitude to be able to look his situation straight in the face, and accept whatever truth is there for him. It takes courage to stay with unpleasant thoughts, to “be with” them, to learn from them and not be able to “do” anything about them. I have a hard time even imagining how hard these thoughts must be for Gary. I also believe that if he could face his suffering, at least his anxiety would be eliminated.

If you have trouble with stress or anxiety in any form try this. Sit quietly two or three times a day, especially if you are in the middle of an attack, for about two minutes. Keep you back straight, notice your breathing and ask yourself these questions. What is behind this tension? If this this anxiety is a symptom of some unresolved situation in my life, what is the situation?

I’d like to close with a quote by Stephen Gilligan from his book, The Courage to Love,

“Life is great, but sometimes it hurts like hell.”